Brother, Can you Paradigm?

I just read an interview with my friend Tim O’Reilly in which he approvingly cited Thomas Kuhn’s “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. There are some books so bad, but so plausible and influential, that periodically trashing them in public is almost an obligation. The really classic stinkeroos of this kind, like Karl Marx’s Das Kapital, exert a weird kind of seduction on otherwise intelligent people long after their factual basis has been completely exploded.

Yes, Kuhn’s magnum opus is one of these. When I was a bright and naive young sprat, full of zeal to correct my fuddy-duddy elders, I loved Kuhn’s book. Then I reread it, and did some thinking and fact-checking, and discovered that it is both (a) deeply wrong, and (b) dishonest,

First, deeply wrong. Kuhn’s basic model that paradigm changes are generational — you have to wait for the old dinosaurs to die — is dramatically falsified by the history of early 20th-century physics. Despite well-publicized exceptions like Einstein’s refusal to accept “spooky action at a distance”, the record shows us that a generation of physicists handled not one but two major paradigm shifts in their lifetimes — relativity and quantum mechanics — quite smoothly indeed.

Later in the 20th century, the paradigm shift produced by the discovery of DNA and the neo-Darwinian synthesis of evolutionary theory didn’t require the old guard to die off before it was accepted, either. More recently, the discovery of things like reverse transcriptase and “jumping genes”, which broke two of the central dogmas of genetics, were absorbed with barely a ripple.

I found many other examples once I started looking. It turns out that the kind of story Kuhn wants to tell is quite rare in the hard sciences. There are a few examples of paradigm shifts that fit his model — my personal favorite is Wegener and the continental-drift hypothesis — but they are the exception rather than the rule. Most theoretical upheavals, even most very radical ones, happen rather smoothly.

The soft sciences are a somewhat different story, and the reasons for this are revealing. Look at the post-Freudian upheaval in psychology or the clashes between social contructivism and the evolutionary-psych crowd and you will see something much more like a Kuhnian shock going on (I suspect we’ve got another one coming in linguistics when Noam Chomsky kicks off). But these fields are vulnerable largely to the extent that they are not science — that is, when the dominant model is poorly confirmed or untestable, and holds largely for reasons of politics and/or the influence of a single charismatic personality.

One of the most pointed criticisms of Kuhn is that his book is a sort of soft-science imperialism, an attempt to project onto the hard sciences the kind of incoherence, confusion, and political ax-grinding we see in (say) sociology or “political science”. In doing so, it does real science a profound disservice.

The dishonesty in the book is that Kuhn evades the question of whether paradigm shifts are an emic or etic phenomenon. In fact, he does this so neatly that it’s possible to read the whole thing and not notice that the largest central question about the nature of paradigm shifts is being dodged. Do they change the world or just our description of it? Kuhn hints at a radical sort of subjectivism without ever acknowledging what that would actually mean.

Kuhn got me interested in the cultural history of science when I read this book around 1971. But the more I studied it, the more I became convinced that Kuhn’s thesis is simple, appealing, and wrong. Among many other flaws, he erects a binary distinction between “normal” science and paradigm-shattering earthquakes that is not really sustainable except through a kind of selective hindsight. It plays to our human tendency to want to make heroic narratives out of history, but it misrepresents science as it is actually practised and perceived by the people who do it.

(For a demolition of Kuhn that focuses less on the factual holes in his thesis and more on the historical and logical flaws, see this New Criterion article.)

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  1. If I mention Karl Popper in a lecture I can usually count on someone telling me that Popper is discredited and I should be talking about Kuhn and his successors, instead.

    The trouble is, Popper offers me a practical tool for intellectual work: a reliable way of checking whether I may be deluding myself, which may help me get nearer to the truth.

    Kuhn offers me only a passive sociological interpretation of how intellectual communities function. He may be right, but no interpretation can replace a functioning heuristic for finding error.

    If there’s a lesson to be learned from this, it’s that I shouldn’t be surprised that the world prefers Kuhn — that in itself is a lesson about the truth of both men’s ideas.

  2. The Authoritarian Personality is another one of those books:

    This is the famous Frankfurt School book from the 50s that used pseudoscience to show that opposition to leftism was a form of mental illness.

    “The Authoritarian Personality had a tremendous impact on Hofstadter and other liberal intellectuals, because it showed them how to conduct political criticism in psychiatric categories, to make those categories bear the weight of political criticism. This procedure excused them from the difficult work of judgment and argumentation. Instead of arguing with opponents, they simply dismissed them on psychiatric grounds.”- Christopher Lasch

  3. From the New Criterion article linked above:

    William Safire’s New Political Dictionary has an article on “paradigm shift,” a phrase popularized by Kuhn, which reports both Bush (senior) and Clinton being much impressed with its usefulness.

    As ESR’s post suggested (“The soft sciences are a somewhat different story”), it is a useful term for political and social ideas, just not for real science.

  4. “In fact, he does this so neatly that it’s possible to read the whole thing and not notice that the largest central question about the nature of paradigm shifts is being dodged. Do they change the world or just our description of it?”

    I think the whole point is that you can’t answer that question.

  5. As a side note, even in a field where all the content is intellectually rigorous, like math… The stuff that math teachers teach is not just mathematical statements. It’s things like “how mathematical research should be done”, or “whether mathematical research should be done or cared about at all”, or “what parts of math are interesting and what’s not”, or “what’s the best approach to understanding some topic”. These things are taught, well or badly, by all math teachers; or at any rate the students learn these things from them.

    And these do seem to quite obviously fit ESR’s description: “these fields are vulnerable largely to the extent that they are not science–that is, when the dominant model is … untestable, and holds largely for reasons of politics and/or the dominance of a single charismatic personality”. Particularly math as taught in K-12. I have the impression that there have been upheavals every few decades in how _that_ is done.

    Now, one could properly say that that falls under the subject of “education”, and is accomplished by a more-or-less entirely different crowd of people than those who do mathematical research. But isn’t that a little odd? From what I’ve heard, math professors generally have nothing to do with and want nothing to do with K-12 math education. There are reasons for this, some of which are natural (e.g. that a majority of the people taking K-12 math classes will not choose mathematical research as a career), but the result strikes me as unhealthy.

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